Thursday, May 15, 2008

Testing The Waters

Kinsella has a pretty frank rejection of Dion's "carbon tax" policy:
Forget about the fact that, with fuel prices having gone up a billion per cent in recent months, we already have a driver-deterring carbon tax. Forget about the fact that it is unfair to people on fixed incomes (like the elderly) and the poor (who have to heat their homes and buy food, too), and is therefore profoundly un-Liberal. Forget about the fact that it neglects to tax other dangerous greenhouse gases. Forget about the fact that we would all like to see political parties investing in things like electric cars, instead of continuing to invest in internal combustion engines (and not just lunging at our wallets all the time). Forget about the fact that not a single voter - not one - will ever be convinced that a government will apply the resulting mountains of revenue to helping the environment and not, say, paving a road in someone's riding. Forget about all of that.

It's bad politics. It is already confusing voters. It therefore gives the Tories a Hell of an opening to swift boat the Liberals on the environment - again (a six-year-old could write the attack spots). It reinforces the impression that federal Libs are utterly disconnected from the day-to-day lives of real Canadians, sipping lattés at Starbucks and listening to CBC Two, while the Tories are down at Tim's with 30 million other regular folks, talking hockey.

Here's my point: if you want to advocate a policy that will contribute to you losing, then you will not get an opportunity to enact that policy. And, if your loss is a big one - say, September 4, 1984 big - then you render your policy Kryptonite, and ensure (à la John Tory, with his funding of private religious schools thing) no political party will ever go near it again.

I'm not saying no to a carbon tax. I'm saying no to a carbon tax now.

Fair points, this type of policy is rife with risk, potentially a disaster, nobody disputes that. I don't necessarily agree that Dion's plan would be "bad politics", it depends on the packaging, the delivery and having the necessary time and space to engage. Add Warren's voice to a growing list of opinions on the theoretical, which is really the point after all.

The most curious part about this debate, there is nothing concrete, there is no plan, there are no initiatives. Everyone has run in different directions, implying this, it will hurt them, it will help that, and yet, we know NOTHING. The Liberals haven't released their policy, it's really all speculation, so the fuss is really a constructed mirage.

I keep hearing concerns that the Tories have already out-flanked the Liberals, framed them into a corner, because Dion has mused without delivering, dithered while he gets tattooed. I think that is absolute nonsense, how can you be attacked and defined, when you don't even know what were talking about here? What we see now is all just background noise, as everyone test drives their lines and spin. And, therein lies the beauty of the present state.

As I commented at Kinsella's, we should look at this period as if the Liberals are conducting a free national focus group. All the various columns and reaction are within the prism of the theoretical, it allows the Liberals to test the waters, gauge the appetite, see the hurdles, map the challenges, without actually diving in. In many respects the Liberals are on the sidelines, as everyone else digests the merits and pitfalls of a carbon tax, using various models. What I'm saying, the Liberals have the benefit to change the policy before it is actually released. Having ideas floated about, isn't necessarily a bad development in the long view, because the Liberals still ultimately control, they have the power of pragmatism, the ability to react, without actually having committed. Rarely does a political party enjoy such latitude. Let's just hope that Dion and company are watching intently, and react accordingly.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some people come from an era in which he Liberal Party didn't really need to stand for anything. Didn't really need to take a position. Times were easier then. Just say whatever's popular and watch a divided opposition fall apart in response. That's pretty much what the last decade was for Liberals.

If we still lived in such a world, I'd say Kinsella's points were relevant. We don't. They're not.

That's not to say that Dion's approach is ideal - he has to give serious consideration to what measures are going to be added beyond the tax side to help families struggling with costs.

People aren't stupid. They'll understand the need to shift to consumption taxes, we just need to have the appropriate carrot to go along with it. From what I can see, we're not there yet. But we might be close.

Steve V said...

anon

Nobody seems to be factoring in the cost of doing nothing.

ottlib said...

We have not really seen the nuts and bolts of Mr. Dion's proposals and folks are already passing judgement on it.

Polls seem to indicate that Canadians are alright with a carbon tax in principle and remember these polls were taken in the last couple of weeks when high oil prices and the current economic slow down were not exactly new developments. So, I do not see this as being a real drag on Liberal fortunes at the moment.

We will really see the reaction from Canadians, good or bad, when Mr. Dion and the Liberals begin to flesh out his proposal.

Steve V said...

I just caught Liberal MP Byron Wilfert, and he made the point that nobody knows the plan, but that the party is listening and RESPONDING to the reaction. In the end, all this debate, may just allow for some tweaking, a better end product.

Josh G said...

Kinsella made some good points, but this tore it for me:

It reinforces the impression that federal Libs are utterly disconnected from the day-to-day lives of real Canadians, sipping lattés at Starbucks and listening to CBC Two, while the Tories are down at Tim's with 30 million other regular folks, talking hockey.

I hate this sort of garbage - I am a real Canadian who is listening to Radio Two *right now* and who drinks Tim's coffee almost daily. The only people with the sort of "impression" that Kinsella mentions are CPC hacks issuing talking points.

WesternGrit said...

A carbon tax is not the answer. Kinsella is right - gas prices are taxing enough as it is. We need to regulate gas prices for domestic consumers...

That's the best plan by far.

WesternGrit said...

... we can control the polluters in industry - namely big oil. It's the oil companies that want the consumption tax on gas. They want it because they know that it will leave more cash in their own pockets. Less for them to do on the smokestack/tarsands/talings pond front...

RuralSandi said...

How can anyone judge when they don't know what the plan is?

Kinsella doesn't know what the plan is.

Geez.

North of 49 said...

@ruralsandi:

"How can anyone judge when they don't know what the plan is?"

Well! (Rubs hands.)

This is one of those situations that's beautifully tailor-made for every opinionator's bogeymen to come leaping out from under the bed. In cases like these, absence of facts is a feature, not a bug, because there aren't any pesky truths or statements to get in the way of a good, satisfying "OMG the sky's gonna fall!" bed-wetting fantasy.

The Chicken Littles seem to revel in it, though I don't know why. That's what's going on though.

Trevor said...

I understand that you guys want to portray this in the best possible light but let's be serious here, this is bad politics. Releasing this with no details has been a disaster, Dion has allowed everyone to paint the policy any color they want, none of it is good so far. At this point the final policy will need to be some kind of miracle to overcome the bad impression people already have.

As for polls. If you poll Canadians about carbon taxes and the need for polluters to pay they will say yes in huge numbers. If you ask those same people if they support a carbon tax where THEY have to pay I guarantee you they will be against it. Everyone wants concrete action but noone wants to pay, Everyone wants those big evil faceless corporations to pay.

This party under Dion has absolutely no political instincts whatsoever, it's like someone burned all the old playbooks or something. Dion has been outflanked on every issue, painted as a weak leader and a coward, failed to inspire his supporters despite a new scandal every week by the government and turned the Liberals into a regional (Toronto) party. Personally I'm ok with it but if you go into the next election with your main election plank being that you will raise people's heating costs you will get slaughtered.

Kinsella knows more about politics and winning elections than the whole current group combined. Feel free to flame me now.

Möbius said...

We will really see the reaction from Canadians, good or bad, when Mr. Dion and the Liberals begin to flesh out his proposal.

And then what?

If the party then rejects the carbon tax, it will become a "hidden agenda" in the next election campaign.

Flesh it out first, think it through, and then start talking broadly about it.

Dr. Tux said...

WesternGrit, Kinsella, and others,

Can you show me the part in the plan where it says Canadians will have to pay higher taxes at the pumps?

I seem to have missed that part somewhere. Any verified economic analysis would be helpful as well.

Thanks.

Steve V said...

"Can you show me the part in the plan where it says Canadians will have to pay higher taxes at the pumps?"

Everything I have heard, unequivocal rejection of a gasoline tax.


trevor

"Releasing this with no details has been a disaster, Dion has allowed everyone to paint the policy any color they want, none of it is good so far."

"So far" will look so far away when the dust settles, what we hear now is beyond meaningless. If anything, all the fear mongering, might just make it look relatively more attractive, once we see it. You're putting too much emphasis on today, when in reality it is irrelevant once we see the details. I'm not worried about lasting damage at all, in fact, like I said, it is could to have this public airing without any commitment. How anyone can conclude "disaster" at this point, before any point, is beyond me. It's like saying the game is lost, from watching the warmup. Please.

Koby said...

The main argument for carbon tax is that it will have change people’s behavior. The thing is though that the raising cost of gasoline is already doing that. A carbon tax is redundant. Fuel prices are only going to go up and up and that provides people with all the incentive they need to change their behavior. Adding a carbon tax makes such shock therapy all the more painful.

This is no small point. There is no such thing as “revenue neutral” carbon tax. Intentional or not, a carbon tax would shift more of the tax burden onto lower income earners. Students, for example, do not pay much if anything in the way of income taxes. As it is they are facing a double whamming of higher fuel costs, those that have cars anyway, and higher grocery costs. Carbon tax would make things even worse.

The Liberals have countered that they not increase the amount of taxes Canada’s pay on gasoline. They will simply replace the excise tax with a carbon tax. That being the case, why bother talking about applying a carbon tax to gasoline. Say you are applying a carbon tax to everything but gasoline and in so doing cut talk of a gas tax off at the pass.

Deno said...

"Nobody seems to be factoring in the cost of doing nothing."


Ok Steve V, I'll bite. What do you think the cost of doing nothing about is?

Deno

Steve V said...

koby

Who said gasoline? Why are we just running with the phantom ball? Are we listening, or just going with what the Cons say?

deno

Sorry, if you have to ask...

Anonymous said...

Dion will get clobbered at the polls..We don't need, for the sake of our country, a Harper majority.
They are not too happy with Gordon Campbell, and his carbon tax. Goodbye Liberals. No one will trust you again, the voters will say.

Koby said...

"Who said gasoline?"

The Liberals. It has reported by serveral different newspapers whatever plan the Liberals go with it will not result an increase in gas prices; if they introduce a carbon tax, with regard to gasoline it will simply replace the existing excise tax.

Dr. Tux said...

Deno,

Check the Stern report. I think that'll give you the best estimates we currently have on the costs of doing nothing... Approximately 20% of the global economy.

Koby,

The price of gas is going up and up and you're right to point that out.

The real problem, (not the hypothetical problem of what Dion's plan may or may not contain), the REAL problem is that this current government is doing nothing to help the country prepare for high fuel prices. Nothing. Our country is flying blind, without any leadership.

Food crisis? What food crisis? Transport crisis? What transport crisis? Inflation? What you talkin' bout Willis?

ottlib said...

The Conservatives and the NDP are trashing the Dion proposal, such as it is, saying all sorts of nasty things about it.

What a startling development.

Look folks, if Stephane Dion, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton were walking down the road and Stephane Dion were to discover a pot of gold, Stephen Harper would bitch about the shape of the pot. And Jack Layton would bitch about Mr. Dion being no different from Mr. Harper for finding the pot of gold in the first place.

Bottom line, neither one of these men will give Mr. Dion a break and I believe Canadians will realize that. So when they make their outlandish claims regarding this proposal Canadians will generally take it for the partisan BS that it is.

Further the Liberals should ignore both of them except to pick up some lines of argument when it comes time to sell this proposal. If the Liberals can take each point their opponents make against the proposal and refute them with facts it would go along way in selling this proposal.

As I stated before Canadians seem to support the principle of a carbon tax so I do not foresee a major impact one way or another on Liberal support in the short term. Long term, it could be different depending on how well the Liberals explain the details of the tax changes they are proposing.

Incidentally, there is a danger for both Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton in going over the top at this stage. If they succeed in creating a bogey man out of this proposal and it turns out to be not as bad as they say then they will have given the Liberals a leg up.

As well, I expect the policy to be rather good. Stephane Dion is a policy wonk. Creating good policy is his strength. So the only real question is how well he and the Liberal Party can sell the policy to Canadians.

Josh G said...

This is no small point. There is no such thing as “revenue neutral” carbon tax. Intentional or not, a carbon tax would shift more of the tax burden onto lower income earners. Students, for example, do not pay much if anything in the way of income taxes. As it is they are facing a double whamming of higher fuel costs, those that have cars anyway, and higher grocery costs. Carbon tax would make things even worse.

Precisely. This is, more than anything else, why I oppose any tax that would increase energy prices even more than they have already risen.

That being said, listening to Dion's speech to the Canadian Club today, I was very, very impressed by his improved oratorical skills.

RuralSandi said...

The fact that they are trying so hard to trash a policy when they don't know the whole package seems to me like they're worried.

What if - Dion and the Liberals are purposely letting the trashing go on and then come out with a surprise, common sense package that will please the voters?

One never knows.....

Anonymous said...

as an old greatgrandmother in her eighties I salute Mr.Dion....maybe he is trying to do the right thing instead of worrying about votes....give him a chance. I dread the month of June coming as I know I will no longer be able to breathe right because of the pollution. I have never had breathing problems until the skies turned gray and it is especially bad when the airshow is in town. I think Mr.Dion may be the change we can believe in.

Steve V said...

anon

Good point, I hadn't really considered the timing. Rolling out the policy, when people can visibly see the problem might provide powerful symbolism. Dion speaking outdoors, with a brown soup in the backdrop, pick your city, isn't a bad image.

Anonymous said...

The Libs shouldn't wrestle defeat out of the jaws of victory. On protecting the environment, the Libs have policy, the Cons have rhetoric. If the Libs present a common sense, understandable package, great. If not, don't bother.

wilson said...

We're all going to turn down our thermostats, travel less etc. due to the world price of energy going sky high.
Will a carbon tax make us turn down our heat FURTHER to 65, 62, 54?
Sell our houses in the burbs and buy a condo in the city, sleep our kids 3 to a room, to cut travel costs?
No. There is a point where regardless of the cost, we CAN NOT reduce any further.
Mission accomplished WITHOUT a carbon tax.
There will be no measurable gain from a ct, but there will be measurable pain.

Why inflict more pain on Canadians just to 'shift' an existant tax?
It's a shell game, that does nothing to reduce ghg's, smog and other pollutants.

I don't know what the Cons will do on the enviro file during the mext election. But Libs have certainly softened up Canadians for the cost of change.
Time to cut the fat in government (start with a travel budget that if exceeded will be out of pocket instead of taxpayer funded) and apply the savings to say, helping Ontario go nuclear, cutting the cost of public transit....it's so simple.

Steve V said...

"I don't know what the Cons will do on the enviro file during the mext election."

What more can they do really, after all we are already leading the world, with the toughest plan of any industrialized country. I say just run on what you have, it's clearly tough as nails, supported by experts, both domestic and abroad.

Wayward Son said...

I think the timing is fantastic.

Chances are better than not that this will will be a very warm summer. I imagine Dion announcing his fully flushed out plan the day after (or before) Toronto announces it new record for smog days in a year. Or the day after (or before) it is announced that for the first time the Arctic is ice-free (which many predict will happen this summer). Then the general public will also be able to weigh the short-sightedness of the NDP and Conservative positions and wonder why it is that people like Kinsella assume that Canadians are complete idiots.